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"The Canceled Curse."

MESSAGE FOR JUNE 1, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 3:10-14

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Among Muslims, there are those who look at their sacred book, the Koran and see a book that promotes peace and cooperation. Other Muslims read it and find (for good reason) a book promoting violence and world domination.  Two groups look at the same book, but receive very different messages.  The same thing has happened countless times with the Bible and we saw one very important example of that two weeks ago in our study of Galatians.  The false teachers had come into the churches of Galatia and taught the new converts there that the way to receive the blessing God promised to Abraham’s descendants was to keep the Old Testament law, particularly the law of circumcision. When they surveyed the Old Testament texts about Abraham, because they read the Bible through eyes that didn’t understand grace, they saw a person defined by his obedience to the law of God.  They concluded and taught these Galatians that to follow in Abraham’s footsteps and receive the blessing of Abraham—be a child of Abraham was to live in obedience to the law. They wrongly claimed that just as Abraham’s obedience to God made him acceptable to God, so too would their obedience make them acceptable to God.  This was a twisted understanding of the Old Testament.

The apostle Paul looks at the same Abraham in Genesis, but in a very different (and much more accurate) light. Paul sees Abraham, not fundamentally as one who obeyed God, but as a man who believed God.  He quotes Genesis 15:6, “just as Abraham, “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  In fact, we saw that it wasn’t until after Abraham had placed his trust in God, that God brought him into a covenant relationship with him.  Paul looks at Abraham and says, “No, it wasn’t his works that defined him—that made him acceptable to God, it was his faith.  He calls Abraham the “man of faith” in Galatians 3:9.  Paul says it is likewise those who believe the gospel that God will justify.  Those people who have placed their faith in Jesus will receive the blessing of Abraham, eternal life through the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ.  You don’t have to be circumcised to be a child of Abraham, simply place your trust in Christ. 

As we turn to today’s text, Paul presses that case even further.  He moves from arguing why living by faith is the only way to be made acceptable to God, to explaining from the Bible why living under the law will never make you right with God—will never bring you the blessing of Abraham.  With surgical precision, he uses the Old Testament to expose the lies of the Judaizers and their teaching that obeying the law is how people are justified before God.  As he brings these verses to bear on that question, he injects into the discussion an important truth the Judaizers had failed to mention.

The Old Testament teaches, not only the reality of God’s blessing, but also his cursing.  If you are in right relationship with God, you receive his blessing.  In the Old Testament, that blessing was seen partly in material terms—the Promised Land, good harvests, large families and the like.  But this blessing was seen even more in being part of God’s covenant people—being in a covenant relationship with God.  In the New Testament, God’s blessing is almost exclusively seen in relational terms—intimacy and peace and joy in God.  On the other side of things, if you were not in a right relationship with God, you were liable to receive his covenant curses.  In the Old Testament, one of the fundamental sins of the Jews was that they assumed God would automatically give them his blessing because of what he had promised in the past to men like Abraham, Moses and David.  They forgot that God’s blessings were given within the context of his relationship to the Jews and he called them to be attentive to maintain their covenant relationship with him.  The Jews during most of their history tragically focused almost exclusively on the blessings of the covenant they received from God, but ignored the covenant relationship itself that provided the context for his blessings.  They ignored the relationship by chasing after other gods.  They were in a state of perpetual idolatry, committing spiritual adultery against their covenant partner, God.  After they repeatedly ignored the warnings of the prophets to repent of their idolatries and re-connect relationally with God, the Lord finally brought upon them the very curses of the covenant he had promised back in Deuteronomy 27.  They were exiled from the Promised Land and he withdrew all his covenant blessings in favor of his curses.

We can do the same thing today that the Jews did in the Old Testament.  We pray a “prayer of salvation” and lay claim to the main blessing of the covenant-peace with God in this life and eternal life with God in heaven.  We are going to heaven to enjoy peace and joy forevermore because of something that happened in our past—a prayer or an emotional encounter allegedly with God.  But frankly, we easily ignore our relationship with God in the busyness of life. Our jobs, families, hobbies and other past times and commitments easily become our idols.  We can, like the Jews of old, be far more focused on the blessings of the covenant, than the actual covenant relationship with God through Christ.  Here is one way to know whether we have begun down this road.  For many evangelicals, if they were to discover that after they die they were going to a place where they would enjoy peace and eternal pleasures and perfect health and be reunited with dear, departed loved ones--that would define heaven for them--BLESSING. 

But if they were also to discover that Jesus wasn’t actually going to be in that place, it wouldn’t take them too long to shrug that off as an unfortunate omission.  They wouldn’t be all that troubled by it because their focus on earth hadn’t much been on the relationship, but on the promised blessing.  Like the Old Testament Jews, these people will fall under the curse of God and be banished to hell.  Paul says in First Corinthians 16:22, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!”  Notice the lack of relationship that brings the curse.  Paul loved Jesus so he desperately wanted him to come back. The curse comes to those who are not in that kind of love-soaked relationship with God.  Beloved, if you are one of these people, you are kidding yourself if you think you are going to heaven in that condition.  Heaven will be populated by people for whom the streets of gold and perfect health and all the rest and peace imaginable would hold no appeal…if God isn’t there.  Because, it’s HIM and the relationship with HIM that matters.  What the Israelites missed was that God’s blessings are given to fuel the fire of our worship, not to cause us to forget him.

In this context of who will receive the blessing of Abraham, Paul brings in this truth God’s curse in verse 10.  The main truth of this text we could put this way.  We must follow God’s word that reveals that living under the law and living by faith are absolutely opposed to one another and living under the law will never make us acceptable to God.  Notice how clearly Paul spells out that living under the law by trying to be made right by your performance is opposed to living by faith in Christ.  He uses four Old Testament verses to show three ways in which living by faith and living under the law are opposed to each other. The first way is in verses 10 and 13 where he exposes this truth of God’s curse the false teachers had evidently not mentioned.  The first way living under the law and living by faith in Christ are opposed is:  living by faith brings the blessing but living under the law brings the curse from which Christ had to redeem us.  In the previous verses Paul has shown that living under the law---that is, living as if you could be acceptable to God based on your performance, would never bring the blessing of God he promised through Abraham. Now, he takes it a step further and says, not only will the living under the law not bring the blessing of God, but it in fact brings the curse of God. He writes, [v.10] “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." 

Paul here essentially says, “There’s something about living under the law that the Judaizers haven’t told you—a bit of Old Testament theology they have not divulged. That is, if you seek to be acceptable to God through your performance of the law, you must live out the stipulations of the law perfectly.”  Paul bases that claim on the truth of Deuteronomy 27:26, which is found in the section of curses of the covenant that God lays out for those who do not keep the law.  This verse is something of a summary of all the other 11 curses.  Paul repeats this necessity of perfection under the law in 5:3.  He says there, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” In baseball, if you get a hit 30% of the time, you are considered a good hitter.  But if you are seeking to be acceptable to God based on your performance, you have to bat a 1000--perfect execution of the law.  This isn’t just Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament.  James in 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”  The law is in one sense like a paper-thin, glass bud vase.  If it is in anyway violated, the whole thing shatters into a million pieces. With the law, it’s all or nothing.  Its either perfection or condemnation and for people who are like sheep—all of us having gone astray, that is the lethal component of the law.

The question may be asked, how does this truth apply to the Gentiles in these Galatians churches who had never been under the Old Testament law of God?  The answer is that we are all in some way born under the law, even if we are not Jewish.  This is the clear implication of Paul’s teaching in Romans chapter two. Paul says in 2:14, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  15They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”  Paul is saying that God has written his holy standard of right and wrong on everyone’s heart.  Our consciences, though fallen, reflect this internal law but as sinners, all of us suppress this truth in unrighteousness along with other truth about God and his nature.  The application for Gentiles is that when they chose to be acceptable to God by being a good person—that understanding of what it is to be a good person was originally placed in their heart by God and the same is true for all people.  When they fail to meet God’s internal law, they are just as guilty of breaking the law as the Jews and are therefore subject to the curse of God.  Whether you break the Mosaic law of the Old Testament or your own internal, God-placed law, you are liable to God’s curse because his universal standard for law-keepers is perfection.

Part of the reason the Father sent Jesus to the cross was because of that curse for law breaking.  Paul says in verse 13.  13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”  The curse of the law is God’s punishment for breaking the law. Paul again quotes Old Testament law, here from Deuteronomy 21 where the law states that everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed of God.  Initially, we see Israelite kings hanging on trees the dead bodies of those who had violently opposed God in some way.  They were cursed.  By the time of Jesus, it was understood that curse also referred to criminals who had been crucified.  As we know, Jesus was crucified which made him accursed by God. This is an astonishing truth.    The blessed One, the anointed One becomes because of the cross--the cursed One.

Proverbs 26:2 says, “a curse that is causeless does not alight.”  That testifies to the truth that the curse of God does not come upon anyone without cause.  If there is no sin in a person, then any curse would simply bounce off that person.  Jesus was not liable to the curse of the law because he was sinless.  However, when he was nailed to that cross by the law, he became accursed of God.  When he was stuck to the tree, he became a curse and was then free to receive as a substitute the curse of God we so richly deserved.

The wonder of substitution is again seen in this.  We, who have broken the law a million times, stand cursed by God under the law.  But God provided as our substitute his Son who had never broken the law and was not subject to the curse.  On the cross, our curse, which we had fully earned, was transferred to him; while his righteousness, which we had done nothing to earn, was transferred to us.  That transfer is appropriated by faith.  Jesus becomes for a season accursed of God and we become for eternity acceptable to God.  The apostles repeatedly preached this truth of God’s curse from Deuteronomy 21.  Peter and the apostles tell the Jewish high priest in Acts 5:30, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.  Why did they say “tree” instead of cross?   Because they wanted to emphasize the curse of God that came upon Jesus from being hung on a tree.  Notice their boldness here.  They know that the claim that the Messiah was accursed by God would be seen as blasphemous, but they make it anyway because it was the truth.  Likewise, we should not shrink from proclaiming any part of the gospel because it is seen as politically incorrect to certain people.  In Peter’s first sermon to the Gentiles he says in Acts 10:39, “And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”  Paul preached at Antioch in Pisidia in Acts 13:29, “And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.”  Peter in his first epistle says in 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 

The fact that Jesus bore the curse of the law on the tree, though it sounded like blasphemy to most of the Jews, became very precious to believers because it meant they had been freed from the curse of God that comes when you fail at even one point of the law.  The point Paul is making to the Galatians shouldn’t be lost here.  He is saying in effect, “The Judaizers have taught you that you need to obey the law to be right with God.  Don’t you remember that it is precisely because we could never keep the law that Jesus had to be crucified—to bear the curse of the law for us?  If we could have kept the law, Jesus would not have had to bear God’s curse.”  Paul uses Old Testament truth about the curse of God to dismantle the arguments of the Judaizers and show that living under the law and living by faith are opposed to one another.

A second way he shows this opposition is in verse 11.  There Paul says, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." 

The second way living under the law and living by faith are opposed to one another is: living by faith brings justification, but living under the law brings condemnation.  Here Paul reiterates his main point of the letter which he quotes from Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.  Don’t miss Paul’s strategy in undermining the claims of the false teachers.  He meets those lies with the truth of Scripture.  Just as Jesus quoted Scripture to Satan in the wilderness at his temptation to repel the lies of Satan and even his distortion of Scripture, so Paul meets the lies of the Judaizers with Scripture.

          We must be careful not to be influenced by our post modern world that has decided that propositional truth is passé—that absolute truth doesn’t exist.  The post modern culture hates propositional truth because it exposes its selfishness and draws hard, immovable boundaries for moral behavior with which they are not at all comfortable. Whether the world around us likes it our not, the propositional truths found in the Bible are the primary way in which we come to know who God is and how we can be made acceptable to him through the gospel.  We should not be hesitant to make our case to those inside and outside of the church by quoting the Scriptures as long as it is done in love.  Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  The word is supernaturally charged with power because it is the very word of God to his creatures.  Some of the same people who one day will scoff at it, may the next bow before its power to expose their sin and show them their need for Jesus.  We must never lose our confidence in the power of the word of God to save, teach, to bring correction, reproof and train in righteousness.  Don’t keep the sword of God in its sheath.  Paul doesn’t hesitate to use the word to tear down the lies of the false teachers and we would do well to learn from him here.

          The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk originally spoke these words about the just living by faith to condemn the self confidence of the Babylonians.  They were very confident of their own strength and their own abilities.  By extension, Paul is saying that if you are living under the law, you are resting in your own ability to be acceptable to God based on your performance.  That is not God’s way.  God’s way is for us to humbly declare our own fallen, sin-soaked efforts bankrupt and instead look to Jesus in faith as the only way we could ever be acceptable before a holy God.

          A third way living under the law and living by faith are opposed to each other is found in verse 12.  Paul writes, “But the law is not faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”  Paul reveals a fundamental difference between living under law and living by faith.  He quotes Leviticus 18:5 to point out that the emphasis of the law is in DOING, performance--whereas the practice of faith is believing. We could put it this way.  Living by faith means resting on Christ’s perfect performance of the law, but living under the law relies on our wretched performance of it.  As we will see very clearly later on in the book, this does not mean that living by faith eliminates the importance of obedience or that personal holiness is dispensed with.  In fact, as we have seen before, the only way to live a gradually more sanctified life is through faith, not by trying to be acceptable to God based on our works.  God’s way of making a person holy is by grace, not works.  We see this through out the Bible. 

In Exodus 20, in the opening section of the heart of Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments listen for the grace of God.  He tells Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other God’s before me.”  Don’t miss what Ligon Duncan calls the “logic of grace.”  First, is the announcement of God’s saving work—his deliverance through the exodus.  God gives grace first—he saves these people out of Egypt.  THEN, he issues his commandments to obey which are to be lived out in response to grace.  Overshadowing all the law of God is the grace of God’s deliverance from bondage.  Likewise, our obedience should always be in response to grace, God’s act of deliverance from our sins through Jesus.  Our obedience should never be simply to carry out the stipulations of the law.  That will lead to disaster.

          As we approach the Lord’s Table, I encourage you to think about these glorious and weighty gospel truths so that you can remember what God has done and by his grace, be changed as you look upon the greatest expression of his glory, the cross of Christ.

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